Bees at Leu Gardens

On Sunday Chris and I had walked around briefly around the Gardens without anything much in mind, but now I can’t seem to go anywhere without being distracted by bees.

We saw a huge queen American Bumble Bee Bombus pennsylvanicus, she was magnificent,  a few honey bees and  the wonderful green eyed carpenter bee, so today I took the morning off to go for a slower meander around to see what was happening.

The Gardens are slowly recovering from the terrible winter damage but many old friends have died and all the lovely frangipanis are withered stumps.
I wonder if they will be able to regenerate? It’s clear that things are a good month behind here as Chris and I were able to eat loquats from the tree.. last year they were ripe in  March.
There were some bees..not that many, but quite a few honey bees on the roses.. and then these. (The camera and its operator are not the best but it is a nice record of a sunny morning in May.)
On exactly the same patch of salvia,  a smaller Bombus pennsylvanicus the only bumble bee I saw today.


On Bulbine frutescens (also known as Bulbinella, Snake flower, Cat’s tail, Burn jelly plant) there were quite a few of these tiny bees, they seemed to be grey with a stripy abdomen,  very fast and difficult to photograph.
This was the best of many blurred or just empty frames! The plant itself is very interesting as it’s an old medicinal plant used for  skin conditions.. hence the name “burn jelly”


Next, resting  on a blackberry leaf was this little bee. Pollen baskets full and with blue eyes.


By another patch of salvia was this bee which I am assuming is a Megachile and the nearest match I can find is the Megachile lanata.

It was stopping every now and then for a brush up. It had very distinctive cream hairs on its face and was more gingery than any Megachile I have seen before.

crop 7    crop6


and then gorgeous old green eyes,  the gentle Southern Carpenter bee Xylocopa micans who was in exactly the same place as on Sunday too, on a pretty arching shrub which Joel thinks is a verbena of some sort. Its eyes are really extraordinarily huge!

crop 1      crop 2

Elegant wasps were floating around the bushes and flowers.

Here is a Black and Yellow Mud Dauber Sceliphron caementarium feeding on the fennel. Wasps are so much easier to photograph than bees!

wasp on fennel

There are dragonflies galore which all seem to have come out just now.
Sometimes they will stay still enough  for even my slow camera to get a shot. The most spectacular ones are the saddlebag dragonflies,  which are huge and whose dark wing bases making their body size appear enormous.

Although silhouetted against the sky this is one of the Red Saddlebags Tramea onusta


then there are the little skimmers with the spotted wings

dragonfly crop

I will try to get some positive  ID on the bees.. Bugguide is my friend!

Blue, Beautiful and Rare, Ceratina Cyanea the little British Carpenter Bee

This is a lovely bee.

I have here on my desk some little USA Ceratina duplas and the colour is quite beautiful.
To the casual glance they look black and are very small but when they catch the light they shimmer with a Prussian blue sheen.

Ceratina cyanea is the UK, Small Carpenter Bee, possibly overshadowed by its very showy relation, the magnificent Xylocopa violacea which I painted and wrote about here and which is also making an appearance now in the UK.

It seems to be  confined to a few areas in Southern England. There is a very good and rather poignant account of this bee from the Essex Field Club Site which shows how the casual destruction of habitat can so easily see the demise of one  species in an area.  This was updated in 2007 and I haven’t had time to check with BWARS but I hope there are more recent sightings.

Unlike the other carpenter bees this one wont be drilling holes in your fascia boards or fence posts but will be  looking for a nice dry brittle bramble or rose twig.
I don’t have a copy of this book ‘Bees of Surrey’ by David W. Baldock but it has been mentioned to me so often in relation to solitary UK bees that I think I must get a copy. It has a description of Ceratina cyanea and the book is available from BWARS.  

Readers will know how much I like the older natural history accounts.
In light of the arrival of the Xylocopa in the UK  it is interesting that in
“Marvels of Insect Life: a Popular account of Structure and Habit”
1916 , author Edward Step is regretting

“that the big carpenter bee has not crossed the English  Channel and added its name to the list of British bees. But if we cannot boast of having one of the largest of bees among our fauna, we of the smallest, that is also a clever worker in wood, whose metallic blue body only measures a quarter of an inch.
It is related, moreover, to the burly continental, and shares its habits, though it works in softer materials as seems fitting to its diminutive size. Ceratina needs no bulky post to accommodate its series of cells.
Everybody knows that the long shoots of the bramble that have borne this autumn’s crop of blackberries will die off in the winter and become brown and brittle.
Next spring ceratina will be taking stock of these, and looking for one that has a broken end. Into this she will tunnel, clearing out the pith to the length of about a foot, dividing the cleared space into tiny cells, laying an egg in each, and leaving a mass of suitable food. The partitions between the cells are made of the fragments of pith cemented together by means of her saliva.

Here is an extract from the snappily titled “ Penny Cyclopædia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge” by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge published in the UK in 1836.

Ceratina ceerulcea (Apis cyanea, Kir.), a little bee which is very uncommon in this country and found during the autumn in the flowers of the Jacobeae, ( “ragwort” to us) will serve as an illustration of this genus :—it is about a quarter “of an inch in length, of a bluish-green colour, and very smooth and shining ; the fore part of the head in the male is white. There is a long and interesting account of the habits of this little insect given by Spinola in the tenth volume of the * Annates du Museum d’Histoire Naturelle, from which the following facts are drawn.”

You see even horrid ragwort has its uses! There are other references to Spinola’s observations of the Ceratina, but I have yet to track down a copy in English of his writing. It would be very interesting to find one.
I have had some lovely encounters with the local big carpenter bees.
They are delightful, gentle and beautiful, and the local Xylocopa micans has astonishingly huge green eyes.

The Painting Given the above, there was not really much of a decision to be made, as to what plant to draw with the beautiful bee. But, you can see by the manic scribbles (short of time) I was initially a bit undecided where to put the bramble branch.

Copy of cyan sketch 1    ceratina sketch 2

This is my final decision and,  don’t you just love blackberries! If there is one memory of childhood that I really treasure, despite the ripped clothes and bleeding hands it was blackberrying! I painted a blackberry before and quoted the wonderful Sylvia Plath poem here. It’s always worth another mention.

blackberry 2


The Small Carpenter Bee Ceratina cyanea

ceratina sm

Watercolour and pencil on Arches HP approx 8” x 9 “


** Footnote, Thanks! I just want to say a few big “thank-yous” to the people who are helping me promote the exhibition. Stuart at BWARs for an advert right on the front page of the website! Dale at who will be raffling my print tomorrow at their annual get together.
The tireless Damian at Help Save Bees who has done so much to get the message out about bees.
He twitters, enthuses and inspires. If you are interested in bees follow him on Twitter!
Elephant’s Eye for inclusion in her blog post about artists Artists at Work” here.
Dan for her  mention here.
All my other very kind blog friends who have put ads on their sidebars and given me mentions and my emailing and facebooking friends too of course.
I am really grateful to you all  I will get round to saying personal thanks to you all if haven’t already.

Bee No7: The Beautiful Violet Carpenter Bee. Xylocopa violacea

This is the companion to Bee 6: the Southern Carpenter Bee, Xylocopa micans.

The Violet Carpenter Bee is one of the biggest bees in Europe and has beautiful blue/violet coloured wings and a big shiny black body. It just had to be included in the set.

The facts: CLASS: Insecta
ORDER: Hymenoptera, Bees, wasps, ants and sawflies.
SUPERFAMILY: Apoidea. Bees and some wasps.
FAMILY: Apidae. Bees.
GENUS: Xylocopa. Large Carpenter Bees
SPECIES: Xylocopa violacea

This bee is common to the Mediterranean and Central Europe and now has been spotted occasionally overwintering in the UK. It has the same bad wood chewing habits as the other Carpenter Bees.
There is another species of furry tan Carpenter Bee the Xylocopa varipucta which is on my list to paint and has been described as like a small flying teddy bear and I may get round to it later. .. so many bees so little time!

Bad news for Bees of Baldwin Park
Yesterday, the tidiness police came round to Lake Baldwin and decreed the chopping down of untidy weeds.
We are allowed an environmentally protected zone as long as it is neat.
A mowing man arrived and the whole of the lovely messy tangle of flowers, grasses and reeds has been razed to stalks and stubble. We had this….


Now this, even this last clump of horsemint in the foreground was gone by lunchtime.


Gone are the Spotted Horsements, the Indian Blanket, the wild Blue and Golden Asters, the Yellow Tickseed, the grassy Bottle Brush, the Morning Glories, the Dog Fennel, the brilliant Scarlet Tassel Flower, the delicate purple headed Hairawn Muhly, the silvery Bushy Bluestem, the small Rattle Box shrubs, the Lopsided Indiangrass whose beautiful feathery tops glistened in the morning sun, the odd black dots of the Rayless Flowers, and various pretty Red Pea flowers, and that is to name just the few that I can identify … but we are tidy now.

Gone too are the singing frogs, the chirruping crickets, the sand wasps, the paper wasps, the clicking dragonflies, the beetles, the snakes, the lizards and a million bugs and flies and worst of all, my bees.

All is silent, still and a bit sad.

Of course it will all be back in due course but it seems a shame.

But back to the Carpenter Bee and a simple sketch to just get the proportions right.

. sketch 1

and a colour sketch

col sketch viol sm


Bee No 7: The Violet Carpenter Bee, Xylocopa violacea

xylocopa crop

Who’s got Beautiful Big Green Eyes then? Bee no 6.

I was going to paint the regular Carpenter Bee the one I see most of here but yesterday on the way home, on a straggly patch of horsemint, I noticed one that seemed to have slightly more gingery hair and a brighter blue sheen to its body, then I saw its eyes, its beautiful pale green/blue eyes.
Wow…this is the male of Xylocopa micans,  the Southern Carpenter Bee.

carpenter bee s     green eyessm

My only two half decent photos.. there is always something in the way !!

I read these are common in Florida so I probably just hadn’t noticed the subtle colour differences before.

The facts:

CLASS: Insecta
ORDER: Hymenoptera, Bees, wasps, ants and sawflies.
SUPERFAMILY: Apoidea. Bees and some wasps.
FAMILY: Apidae. Bees.
GENUS: Xylocopa. Large Carpenter Bees
SPECIES: Xylocopa micans

The point of male carpenters having such huge eyes seems to be to help them spot females and also to fly in low light conditions.

PS. I really do sympathise with those whose houses have been drilled and perforated by these nice bees. It must be very frustrating. T
rying to find an humane suggestion, it seems they don’t care for pressure-treated or painted wood.
You can stuff the holes with wire wool which even they find a challenge and if you are a very noisy family they will move out.
They don’t like noise.
That’s probably why we didn’t see any in Spain. ..and just in case you thought I was joking yesterday about them being docile….

bee help

I had planned a quite different pose for the Carpenter Bee but the eyes have it, so a quick drawing to sort the pose out.  micans sketch sm


Bee No 6:The Southern Carpenter Bee Xylocpa micans

carpenter bee xylocopa micans sm

The Gentle Giant of the Bee World, The Carpenter Bee

So I have a new love, he is big, black and hairy.
Yes, today I had a real  “Ahhh” moment with a Carpenter Bee. On a beautiful sunny morning at Leu the Carpenter Bees were busy,very busy, all over this red flower (which I think is Egyptian Star Cluster, Pentas lanceolata).

The flowers are slight, the bees are heavy, so seeing one struggling to keep its feet, holding out a steadying finger seemed only natural. I thought it would fly away at such an intrusion but this lovely bee was happy to clamber aboard this firmer platform and continue collecting nectar, 4 feet resting on me and 2 on the flower.

They are so busy nectar gathering that they scarcely notice you.  I should also add that they do not sting. You see the problem, big bee, small flower.

and three more of these big chaps, trundling across the flower heads.

My bee photos are more luck than anything else. I take a lot, then it’s rather like those “find the hidden animals in the tree” outline drawings in kids puzzle books.. sometimes there is a bee in them and sometimes there is nothing.

This gorgeous handsome bee is Xylocopa virginica, the Common Eastern Carpenter Bee.
It’s the biggest bee in the USA and can be up to a sizeable one inch long.
This one is the all black female taken again at Leu but last week.

carpenter female

Professor Stephen Buchmann writes about bees.
Chris bought me his “Letters from the Hive” and I have found it hard to drag myself away.
Here is a snippet from his very nice article about Carpenter Bees, for the US Forestry Commission’s “Pollinator of the Month” series here.

 “These gentle giants get their name from their life history habits of excavating precisely rounded galleries inside wood. Using their broad, strong mandibles (jaws), they chew into dead but non-decayed limbs or trunks of standing dead trees.
Some species, like the eastern Xylocopa virginica, occasionally take up residence in fence posts or structural timbers, especially redwood, and become a minor nuisance.
Inside their rounded branched galleries, they form pollen/nectar loaves upon which they lay their giant eggs (up to 15 mm long). The female forms partitions between each egg cell by mixing sawdust and her saliva together.
These partition walls are very similar to particle board!”


Diagram from”animals how stuff works . here and a photo of their extraordinarily accomplished woodwork

abeille-apidae-xylocopinae-carpenter bee busy

Photo Stephen Buchmann Also  accompanying the article is Prof Buchmann’s wonderful photo, demonstrating the huge difference in sizes between the bee species


The smallest and the largest: a Perdita minima on a female carpenter bee’s head. Photo by Stephen Buchmann.

Anna, from Anna’s Bee World, who also very kindly helped me identify my Blue Wasp has this photo on her blog and explains how it was achieved.

This photo was taken by one of my graduate advisors, Stephen Buchmann, who is a renowned bee expert. He has this amazing amazing microscope, and an artful eye.
These two bees are real, but obviously dead. He took a Carpenter bee, which are known as some of the largest bees (gentle giants) and he took the smallest bee in the world (Perdita minima) and glued the small bee onto the antennae of the carpenter bee. He thought it would bee (sorry, had to throw that in) cool to show people the size difference between the largest bee and smallest bee.

It’s the photo you would see in the bee version of the Guinness World Records.
There is a scale bar at the bottom of the photo, but I am not sure what the scale is (1mm?). I couldn’t find that. I assume it is 1mm since Perdita minima usually measures about 2mm in size  (0.078 inches).

See Anna’s Bee World here. Two millimeters for the tiny Perdita minima!!!.

I will not be attempting to paint that one. Its rather a shame to see how many sites are dedicated to the eradication of this “nuisance” bee. It seems they don’t actually do too much harm and are so very beautiful and although quite territorial they are not really aggressive (the male bees cannot sting).

I did read that if you want to “move” a Carpenter Bee, you throw a small pebble just past him. He will think it is another bee and go chasing after it. He may not be the sharpest bee in the box then, but his looks are enough to fall in love with.

There are certainly quite a few round here and, having a subversive streak myself, I rather like the idea of them infiltrating the neat timber porches and verandahs of Baldwin Park and setting up some little families there.  Their chewing can apparently be heard several feet away. 🙂


A preliminary sketch: What distinguishes them from Bumble Bees is their glossy hairless abdomen .. and their size!

3 carpenters sm jpg